Sinjun Strom: Photography, Fine Art, and Fashion
Sinjun Strom is an incredible photographer. I've been following her work since I was a sophomore in college and she was just a freshman at KCAI. Now she's finishing up her senior year at SVA, has a Lenscrafters campaign under her belt, and shoots music videos in her free time. She is the hardest worker I know, and even from afar, I've never seen her stop creating.
She began her infatuation with photography in middle school after discovering vintage photographs while thrifting, an activity she still thoroughly enjoys. Sinjun's uncle was a photographer and introduced her to the trade while her dad loaned her the camera of her dreams he had since he was younger (a Pentax K1000). She taught herself about film photography, keeping a journal and taking notes, something she still does - "I write everything I ever think of down. And sometimes I don’t do it right away, but I’ll come back to it. I even have a baby notebook that I keep on me just in case. It says pork for jesus on the first page. It’s cute!" At about the same time, she discovered the Turner Classic Movie Channel, to which she credits her icon-like sense of style. She would watch a movie every day after school and recreate the look - "except westerns because I fucking hate westerns." It's this sense of style that influences Sinjun's work; every piece is like a bit of her.
Sinjun is an artist. She has her hands on every aspect of every photograph she takes. She creates her own props and backgrounds, styles her own shoots, selects her own models, and works their hair and make up into a magnificent subject that she then she takes a photograph of. I met up with Sinjun at a bar in lower Manhattan to talk about Sinjun's creative tendencies, how she deals with the stress of school, work, and a social life in New York City, and how everything from her fashion sense to her props and photographs is purely Sinjun.
Sarah Sickles for Pink Things: Can you tell me a little bit about your background with art and photography?
Sinjun Strom: I was raised in a creative household because my dad is a tattoo artist and my step mom does everything possible. She sews, she sculpts, she paints with multiple mediums, and she literally does everything! So that’s made a huge impact on me to always make my work and push my work by learning new skills if I don’t have them. Also, my parents are super driven. Being surrounded by that always forced me to push myself and to always be making things.
I just grew up in a really creative environment. Growing up the way I did I’ve always felt really driven to explore as much as possible. I’ve explored sculpture and everything. Like I can do so many weird things, but photography was one of those things that I explored and it was my favorite and I’m obsessed with it and I can’t stop. I love it so much.
PT: So can you walk me through a day in your life?
SS: *laughs* A day in my life. I’m trying to think of normal days. Everyday is so stressful. I plan out all of my weeks and write out everything for myself because there’s always way too much to do and I’m always going to school or going to work and in between I’m running errands and what do I even do? I feel like I’m never not doing something. During the week it’s always printing, shooting, editing, running errands, making things, painting things, making new spaces to shoot in. On the weekends I’m working all the time and after I usually hit people up to go to do something afterwards. It’s so hard! I’m nonstop.
PT: You’re constantly making, what is it like and how do you do it?
SS: It has always been a part of me. It’s a huge mental health thing for me. I have to create things or else I go crazy. It’s the only way for me to release things. I can’t stay still or sit around; I have to be satisfied constantly. Also, it’s a huge thing for me to grow. It doesn’t matter how good my photography is getting, I want to keep pushing myself to move forward and if I’m not growing it’s really frustrating. It also affects my mental health. It’s an outlet for me to, I don’t know, release things and do things. Like I always have to make things in order to be happy and to feel good so it’s what I do.
PT: So something that I’ve noticed is the way that you can just tell when your work is a Sinjun Strom photograph. It’s like an extension of you.
SS: I figured out really quickly that, with fashion work and stuff, people at school or people I’ve encountered are trying to fit somebody else’s mold of what fashion photography should be and like what photography in general should be. When I was younger I stopped looking at photography online and I stopped looking at photo books for a while because I needed to step back and have a moment to myself to figure out who I was and what my photography should be. And now my photos are basically me! I basically style girls as if they were me! I want them to be me in a way.
PT: Yes! So you style your shoots yourself, how does that work?
SS: I do everything. I do makeup and hair, sometimes I make the clothes, sometimes I just thrift them. I do everything. I work really fast, that’s the main thing. Because of my experience with film, I don’t shoot a lot. I usually shoot 5 images max per shot or look or whatever. And that makes things run way smoother. I think if I shot a lot I wouldn’t be able to do everything that I do, and that’s the biggest part. So, I don’t know, yeah. I just move really fast. Fast girls.
PT: When I was a foundations student at MIAD, we had to shoot a minimum of 200 images per project.
SS: That’s so stupid. That’s really fucking dumb. You don’t need that. If you have the skill you can shoot a shot. Just take your time and slow down. I’m really fast when I’m doing everything else but when I’m taking the photo I slow down and I look at every single part of it. Also, I think that having a hand in everything makes you focus on everything better. I’m literally looking at everything, the hair the clothes, the lighting, the setting, the composition, every part of it. When you’re looking at everything you can make a better image.
PT: As a part of that, you’ve been making some of your props. Lately I’ve been doing that and I find it really rewarding. How do you feel about it?
SS: That’s the main thing. It’s just rewarding. Like I said, I have this history with drawing, painting, and just creative things in general, and I have to get my hands on stuff. I don’t like just making the image. I like making every single part of it.
PT: So I’m going to switch gears a little bit and talk about models and female representation in your images. You work with yourself as the model often. As a photographer who has been in front of the camera as much as behind it, how has it impacted your understanding of models, the figure, and your work?
SS: I think it's like anything else, when you have a better understanding of every part of making an image it can only make them stronger. As far as modeling goes, it makes me more compassionate towards my subjects, as I know how hard it can be when put in such a vulnerable position. Also, after shooting with people who gave me little to no direction I learned how frustrating that can be for a model. Overall, it has really helped me with directing my models, which has made a huge impact on my work because I can get exactly what I want out of my models, even if they don't have any prior experience.
PT: Can you talk a little bit about your models?
SS: I always photograph women. I think about the angles that I’m shooting them at, trying to make them seem a little more powerful. I just want to represent them positively. Creating very strong images of women. I just try to keep in mind how I’m representing girls. I am so serious about it; especially in fashion photography. I’m feeling really conflicted about the industry as a whole because I don’t want to represent women like that. I’m really serious about representing girls in a positive way; it’s a huge thing for me. It’s not a very prominent thing that people probably notice, but I make sure to only use girls who are friends or girls who are not serious models. I like to keep things as natural as possible. Even if they are super good looking and maybe could be models, usually there’s something about them, like they’re too short or whatever. It’s cool to make them look really good and it’s a cool experience for them because they see the pictures and are like, “holy shit I look really good this is cool!” and they feel really good about themselves. I like creating that experience for people, especially people who hate getting their picture taken. It’s extra satisfying to get them in there. It’s fun; it’s more of a challenge. *laughing*
PT: Do you direct your models? Are they free moving? Do you have an image in your head when you set up or do you work more instinctually?
SS: I’ll judge who needs more direction, I’ve gotten really good at that. I’ll see what they do and if it’s not working out then I’ll direct them to do something really specific. Then I’ll kind of give them an opportunity to play a little bit to see what we can come up with together because that’s really fun and exciting when someone else inspires you, so that’s really fun.
PT: So you’ve been exploring video recently, what led to this transition?
SS: I’ve always been interested in film, like I said; I watch a lot of films. But I’ve never explored it and I have a lot of ideas and concepts for it. I took a video course this year because I was like hey this class is a good platform for me to make video work now.
PT: Okay, we’re winding down now! What are some of your goals?
SS: My goal is to be happy right now. You know? I don’t want to get a job right after school, I think I’m going to travel and then after that I’ll kind of figure out what direction I want to move in.
PT: Who/what are your biggest inspos?
SS: I guess growing up it was my parents, not really like their work, but just like the environment that they put me in was real inspirational, and then film, that’s the biggest thing. It comes out subtly in my work but I watch a lot of movies.
PT: If you could photograph anyone in the world, who would it be?
SS: Snoop Dog. That’s my boy! That’s like my dream, holy shit. I would create the coolest environment for him! Can you imagine? That’s my boy.
PT: Do you have any advice for a photographer reading this?
SS: Take photographs for you. People are constantly looking at other peoples work and trying to pull from other people and make their inspirations show in their work and crap, but make work that satisfies you. Don’t care about what your teachers are saying or what others are saying, as long as you’re happy with your work, that’s the most important part. That’s what it should be for! Not only should people make images or artwork for themselves, but they should make honest ones. I think in environments like school it is easy for one to get lost in the aesthetics and opinions of their peers while forgetting why they might have come to school in the first place. Just make work for you.